Why Parent Imperfection is Necessary for Children

I am a therapist. Most of my clients come in to see me to deal with their growing and shifting identity as parents and beyond. My clients are incredibly caring people who are striving to thrive in their relationships with their partners, their children, their extended family and friends and within themselves. Recently, Sarah (pseudonym), came in and shared her guilt over her own frustration with her son that morning. She had lost her patience with him during the morning transition of getting out the door to go to school/work. She spoke with him harshly, took his favorite toy away from him as a consequence of his lack of cooperation and they subsequently parted with unresolved tension and sadness. Sarah was aware that she had not endangered her son in any way. She was also aware that he knew she had become angry with him and that anger was demonstrated in her lack of kindness and patience, qualities in a parent she highly regards. She cried, confessing how guilty she felt for her reaction to her child that morning. She felt shame over her imperfections as a parent that morning.

I looked at Sarah and said, “I see this is upsetting to you and can understand why. It can feel awful to have negative feelings towards our own children.” Then I asked, “That said, do you realize how great it is that you you are an imperfect parent?”

She was perplexed and asked me to explain further.

Let’s put ourselves in our children’s shoes for a second. When our children come into the world the main things they seem to do are eating, sleeping and crying. They are, however doing something else with abundant focus and intensity. They are studying their caregiver (whom I will refer to as, “parent”). After all, their parents literally mean the world to  their very existence. At first, their parent is seemingly perfect. In fact, every other person in the world (including themselves) will subsequently be compared to their primary study—their parent. As the child grows and becomes more independent, their understanding of their own identity is shaped around how they are and are not like their parents. 

Can you imagine how difficult forming a healthy self-identity would be if you believed your parent was perfect? Every time you screwed up, you would see yourself as an even bigger failure, because you would have failed to be as perfect as your parent, your primary role model. It doesn’t serve your child for you to be the “perfect parent”. Rather, it serves your child for you to acknowledge your mistakes and to model how you can move forward together, in relationship with them as you acknowledge your mistake or imperfection. Through your example, your child will learn how to tolerate and grow from mistakes you, they or others make. When we embrace and model how to work with our mistakes we shift them to learning curves. This gift is so much more than the weight of any one mistake. Learning curves help us live in the moment and move forward on our life’s journey with greater meaning! In recognition of our learning curves, we give our children a model for their own journey in life.

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